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The President's House in Philadelphia

Excerpt from the 1947 Final Report to the US Congress

The December 1947 Final Report to the US Congress by the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission, which was incorporated into the enabling legislation under which the Independence National Historical Park was created, devoted an entire chapter to the historical significance of the President's House.

The final paragraph concludes:

The site of the Presidential Mansion is hardly surpassed in importance by any other historical site in America. The eminent personages who lived here and the decisions affecting the future of the nation that were made here have caused growing interest in the Presidential Mansion and the ground upon which it once stood. It is a distinguished historical site.

Excerpted from: [Charles E. Peterson,] Final Report to the United States Congress by the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission (8 vols., Philadelphia, December 1947), 1:256-69.

Presidential Mansion


Location: within the State of Pennsylvania Park1

1. The state park comprised the three blocks north of Independence Hall; it was later named Independence Mall State Park. The National Park Service took over responsibility for Independence Mall in 1974, and title to the land was transferred from the state to the federal government in the 1990s.

2. Washington moved into the President's House on November 27, 1790.

Home of Two Presidents

When Philadelphia was selected as the nation's capital during the 1790's, a handsome mansion owned by Robert Morris, was leased by the City of Philadelphia as a residence for the President of the United States. This Presidential Mansion stood on Market Street near 6th, only a block north of Congress Hall.

President George Washington lived with his family in the Presidential Mansion from December, 17902 until March, 1797 when he left office.

President John Adams, the second President of the United States, occupied this same house from 1797 until 1800 when he moved to Washington, the new capital of the United States.

For nearly ten years, therefore, the Presidential Mansion occupied a position of paramount importance in national life. Moreover, these were the critical years when the Constitution itself was on trial. The question was: could the United States government operate successfully under its system of checks and balances?

In 1794, "men were asking whether the American experience in self-government had passed its zenith. Could the Republic be saved only by old-world expedients: national debt and accumulation of capital, army and navy and governing classes, perhaps even King?"

For answer, the people of the nation turned their eyes to the house on Market Street in Philadelphia ... they knew well that the leadership needed in these hours dwelt in the Presidential Mansion.

Pilot-House of the Nation

No President of the United States ever faced more difficult problems than those which were met by George Washington.

"The new Constitution possessed neither tradition nor the backing of organized public opinion," Morison and Commager have pointed out. "The new government had to create its own machinery."

There was an empty treasury and a burden of debt.

There were no taxes; no tax collecting agency existed.

The American Army consisted of 672 officers and men. There was no navy.

Foreign encroachments on the Mississippi and in Northwest Territory, increasing depravations upon American shipping, and the rivalry between Great Britain and France were highly explosive elements upon the diplomatic front.

Internal improvements, the problem of westward expansion and sectional rivalries required urgent and intelligent action.

Into Philadelphia and directly into Market Street traveled the nation's problems. They landed in the office of the Chief Executive.

The Presidential Mansion on Market Street was the new nation's pilot-house in troubled and uncharted seas. The pilot, Washington himself, was determined that Constitutional government should be brought safely into port ... nothing, not even political abuse, "could turn him from the course that he discerned to be proper and right."

The Center of the Federal Orbit

The Presidential Mansion was the center of the political and social orbit of Philadelphia.

Moreover, President Washington, upon occupying the mansion, made it his headquarters in attacking the national problems which challenged the administration, meeting each question with the same patience and fortitude which had marked his victorious generalship as commander-in-Chief of the Continental forces.

The threshold of this mansion was crossed by the members of President Washington's cabinet, who, while differing in their political expressions, were united in the will to support and defend Constitutional government. The names in the first cabinet shine with brilliance on history's pages:

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was Washington's Secretary of State.

Alexander Hamilton, close friend of Washington, was Secretary of the Treasury.

Edmund Randolph, former Governor of Virginia, was Attorney-General.

Henry Knox, Washington's chief of artillery, was appointed Secretary of War.

This "cabinet" (the legal recognition of a cabinet did not occur until 1904) met frequently with Washington in the Presidential Mansion. In 1793 alone, there were 46 meetings of the three Secretaries and the Attorney-General in the president's quarters.

Other illustrious American statesmen, as well as diplomatic representatives of other nations, were visitors at the Presidential Mansion: John Adams, vice-president of the United States, who was Washington's successor as the resident of the Mansion; John Jay, Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, who was sent from the Presidential Mansion by Washington to England as a special envoy. Indeed, hospitality at the Presidential Mansion included the most notable military and political figures of the nation.

To his weekly Thursday dinner in the Mansion, the President invited "members of Congress, officials of the state and city governments, prominent citizens and visitors to the city, sometimes with their wives and families." Washington always referred to these repasts as his "Publick dinners." Abigail Adams, wife of the vice-president, wrote to her daughter: "On Thursday last I dined with the President, in company with the ministers and ladies of the court."

The future of America was a prime topic of conversation at these social gatherings. The President's home was a meeting-place for the greatest minds in the nation.

190 High Street

The Presidential Mansion stood at 190 High Street. This address under the present numerical system is 526, 528, and 530 Market Street. (High Street's name was officially changed to Market Street in the year 1853 although the latter name had been in popular use for many decades.)

3. Mary Lawrence Masters was the sister of this John Lawrence.

4. Richard Penn was lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. He served as acting governor for two years while his older brother John (governor of the colony) was in England.

5. King George refused to receive the Olive Branch Petition from the First Continental Congress. Richard Penn was questioned by members of Parliament, and told them the colonists' grievances were legitimate.

Before the Presidential Mansion was erected, its site was owned by Chief Justice John Kinsey, the Quaker jurist, who bought the property from the Penn family in 1738. The ground was purchased by John Lawrence, who became Mayor of the city in 1765. Lawrence's daughter3, the widow of William Masters, erected a three and a half story brick home that was reckoned to be the finest house in the city. The widow Masters in 1772 gave this home to her daughter two days before the latter's marriage to Richard Penn, Governor of Pennsylvania4. It was popularly known as Richard Penn's house although it belonged to his wife. Penn, incidentally, figured in national history when in 1775, with Arthur Lee, he carried the petition of the Continental Congress to King George, the Third, in England.5

In 1777, when the British occupied Philadelphia, Mrs. Richard Penn's house, as the most suitable mansion in the city, became the headquarters of General Howe.

The next occupant — when the British had quit Philadelphia — was a luxury-loving and extravagant man who was placed in command of the city: his name was Benedict Arnold. He had sentinels placed in front of the residence, kept a handsome coach, and, during the period paid court to his future wife, a Philadelphia belle named Peggy Shippen.

Benedict Arnold's successor as resident of the Masters-Penn mansion was Sieur John Holker, consul-general of France. While Holker lived in the house, a fire broke out on January 2nd, 1780. The conflagration raged through a day and night of blizzardy weather, leaving the historic mansion in ruins.6

6. The full extent of the damage from the fire is not precisely known. At the very least, the upper floors of the main house were destroyed.

Morris Rebuilds the House

Robert Morris, the Revolutionary War financier, "leased the ruins and the property after the fire and at once began to rebuild the house, whose solid walls remained."

The City Council surveyed the possibilities of finding a suitable house for the President. Since Morris himself was the leader of the movement to bring the Federal Government to Philadelphia, doubtless he was found to be agreeable to the selection of his mansion as the executive residence.

The brick-constructed Presidential Mansion was three stories high, with a garret and a sloping roof.

7. The 1785 Burnt House Plan shows the width of the main house as 45 feet, 6 inches, and its depth as 52 feet.

8. The 1785 Burnt House Plan shows the width of the kitchen/wash-house as 20 feet, and its depth as 55 feet.

9. This is a misreading of "wash-house."

The main building was 55 feet, 6 inches wide by 52 feet deep.7 The kitchen and wash-house were 25 feet wide by 55 feet deep.8

"A walled garden, bright in summer with fruit and flowers gave a green setting on the sides and rear." The garden extended to the stables at Minor Street in the rear.

The grounds of the Presidential Mansion contained a long extended kitchen, a smoke-house, a work-house9, and hall for servants. Trees lined the slate-covered sidewalk which ran along the gravel level of Market Street.

Washington, as will be seen, required several alterations in the building before he occupied it as his official residence.

The Home Life of a President

President Washington was reserved and dignified although innumerable acts have revealed his warm and thoughtful manner toward subordinates. He possessed at all times a full sense of the dignity of his office; this was reflected in the careful attention he gave to the Presidential residence and to the receptions by which an opinion of the American state might be formed abroad as well as at home.

Just before he occupied the Presidential Mansion, he wrote concerning its organization to his private secretary, Tobias Lear:

10. The original letter says "me."

11. The original letter says "wash-house."

12. The original letter says "meat" (singular).

13. The original letter says "Servants' Hall."

"The house of Mr. Robert Morris had previous to my arrival been taken by the corporation for my residence. It is the best they could get; it is, I believe, the best single house in the city, yet without additions it is inadequate to the commodious accommodations of my family. These additions, I believe, will be made. The first floor contains only two public rooms (except one for the upper servants); the second floor will have two public (drawing) rooms, and, with the aid of one room with a partition in it, the back room will be sufficient for the accommodation of Mrs. Washington and the children and their maids, besides affording her10 a small place for a private study and dressing room. The third story will furnish you and Mrs. Lear with a good lodging-room, a public office — for there is no room below for one — and two rooms for the gentlemen of the family. The garret has four good rooms, which must serve Mr. and Mrs. Hyde, unless they should prefer the room over the work-house11, also William and such servants as it may not be better to place in the proposed additions to the back building. There is a room over the stable which may serve the coachman and postilions, and there is a smokehouse, which may possibly be more valuable for the use of servants than for the smoking of meats12. The intention of the addition to the back building is to provide a servant's hall13 and one or two lodging-rooms for the servants. There are good stables, but for twelve horses only, and a coach-house which will hold all my carriages. Speaking of carriages, I have left my coach to receive a thorough repair by the time I return, which I expect will be before the 1st of December."

President Washington gave his first reception in the Presidential Mansion on Christmas Day, 1790. Sallie McKean, daughter of the former President of the Continental Congress, wrote to a friend in New York:

"You never could have had such a drawing-room; it was brilliant beyond anything you could imagine ... there was so much of Philadelphia taste in everything that it must be confessed the most delightful occasion of the kind ever known in this country."

14. These presidential audiences or "levees" were held every Tuesday.

Washington received "citizens and strangers" between three and four o'clock in the afternoon on every other Tuesday14 in the dining room of the Presidential Mansion. "Washington received his guests standing between the windows ... the company entering a front room and passing through an unfolding door."

15. The bow window Washington added to the State Dining Room looked out upon the paved yard.

Washington, who had supervised the orderly operation of his Virginia home and plantation, brought the same faculty for organization to his Philadelphia home. He planned changes in the Executive Mansion, designing new rooms as well as a bow window that looked out upon the walled garden from the dining room.15 "I hope my study (that is to be)," he wrote to Lear, "will be in readiness against I arrive." He expected that the yard will be "kept as clean as the Parlour. That was always the case in Mr. Morris's time and it becomes more essential now as the best rooms are now back, and an uninterrupted view from them into the yard and kitchen which is nearly upon a level with the dining Room."

Washington's eye for regularity saw to everything. He wrote to Lear concerning the household fixtures, the accommodations and duties of the servants, and the various decorations in the newly constructed rooms.

16. Mrs. Washington's granddaughter spelled her name "Nelly."

17. George Washington Custis was nine when the Washingtons moved to the President's House. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy while in Philadelphia, but never the University of Pennsylvania.

18. Hyde was never the butler; he preceded Fraunces as steward. Initially, there were about 24 servants in Washington's presidential household, 8 of them enslaved Africans.

19. Washington did not accept a salary, he asked Congress to pay the expenses of the presidential household. Out of the $25,000 annual allowance, the president was expected to pay the salaries and living expenses of his office and household staffs, and all the expenses related to the President's House, including all the food and drink served there.

20. Wansey was mistaken. Nelly was two years older than her brother.

The President and Mrs. Washington often had pleasant, youthful company at the house in the presence of their two grandchildren, Nellie16 and George Washington Custis. The latter was entered in the University of Pennsylvania when the capital moved to Philadelphia.17

Washington's amanuensis was Tobias Lear, a graduate of Harvard, who impressed General Benjamin Lincoln, an overseer at the Cambridge college. Upon getting a request from Washington to recommend a suitable person for private secretary, Lincoln suggested Lear.

Lear and his wife lived with the Washingtons at Philadelphia. Lear supervised the large staff in the Executive Mansion, which was composed of Mr. Hyde, the butler and his wife; Samuel Fraunces, Washington's steward who was famed as a patriot-tavernkeeper in New York City; and fifteen other servants, white and negro.18

Household expenses were high. The President's salary was $25,000 but his expenses ran beyond this income.19 Washington was considered a wealthy man but the fact remains that upon taking up the duties of the Presidency, he was needful of ready cash and was obliged to borrow 600 pounds in order to meet expenses of moving from Mount Vernon.

Although Washington maintained the Presidential Mansion in a style demanded by his concepts of the office, there was a warm, home-like core of family life. In 1794, Henry Wansey, an English manufacturer, upon presenting a letter of introduction, was invited to take breakfast with the family. The fare at this family gathering was simple "...Mrs. Washington made tea and coffee for us. Miss Custis, her granddaughter, a very pleasing young lady of about sixteen sat next to her, and her brother, George Washington Custis, about two years older than herself."20

As one who made American history in the saddle, Washington paid careful attention to his horses and the condition of the stables at the rear of the Presidential Mansion grounds. He kept fourteen horses, and since the stable held only twelve, two horses were boarded at the nearby livery-stable of Jacob Hiltzheimer. The President employed a coachman and two grooms to care for his stable.

Washington in Philadelphia used three carriages: a large, cream-colored London-made coach, richly decorated — "the most splendid in the country" — carried Washington on state occasions; a lighter coach, made by David and F. Clark of Philadelphia (Washington often referred to this carriage as the "chariot" and preferred it for long journeys); a phaeton which Mrs. Washington frequently used in Philadelphia.

The Second President

It was in the Presidential Mansion that George Washington prepared the second inaugural address, delivered by him at Congress Hall.

It was in the Market Street house that he had drafted his Farewell Message to Congress.

And from this same house, he departed to resume his private life as a Virginia gentleman-farmer at Mount Vernon.

Washington's successor in the Presidential Mansion was John Adams, of Massachusetts, whose long public career had been devoted to the cause of independence and the formation of Constitutional government.

While Adams occupied the Mansion, European affairs were in a disturbing state of unrest. The French Revolution flames with violent results. Danton and Robespierre had been guillotined and the French Directorate countenanced raids by French corsairs on the American fleet.

In this ticklish international situation, the eyes of the nation, as well as of Europe, turned again to 190 High Street. Here, Adams called upon the diplomatic trouble-shooters of the nation — Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall and Charles C. Pinckney — to deal with a French diplomat who had once lived in Philadelphia, Talleyrand. Meantime congress pushed through measures establishing a Navy Department and authorizing the construction of the frigates Constitution, Constellation, and the United States. Secretary of State Pickering was a frequent visitor to the Executive Mansion in this period of darkened international skies. Thomas Jefferson, the vice-president of the United States, was another high-ranking statesman who often consulted with the President at his home. George Washington, visiting Philadelphia for the last time, dined with his successor in office at the Presidential Mansion on November 26th, 1798.

John Adams piloted the ship of state successfully through the storm, charting a course that once more pointed to the fact that the nation's pilot-house was located at 190 High Street.

A Distinguished Historical Site

Robert Morris had sold the mansion to Andrew Kennedy in 1795 for $37,000. After the capital moved from Philadelphia, one John Francis opened it as Francis' Union Hotel. As a hostelry, it was the scene of dinners honoring Thomas Jefferson and Thomas McKean, Governor of Pennsylvania. The building was used thereafter for mercantile purposes until it was razed in 1832.

21. At the time this report was written (December 1947), more than the house's foundations survived. The four-story eastern wall of the main house was largely intact, as reportedly were remnants of other walls. If the demolition specifications were followed in 1952, these were all demolished to four feet below street level during the creation of Independence Mall.

Investigation indicates that a portion of the original foundations of the Presidential Mansion remains intact under the 19th Century buildings that now occupy the site.21

The site of the Presidential Mansion is hardly surpassed in importance by any other historical site in America. The eminent personages who lived here and the decisions affecting the future of the nation that were made here have caused growing interest in the Presidential Mansion and the ground upon which it once stood. It is a distinguished historical site.

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Copyright ©1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.